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Moore: Analysis of Common Sense

Life and Works
. . Against Idealism
. . Common Sense
. . Indefinable Good
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Cambridge professor G. E. Moore was the single most influential British philosopher of the twentieth century. His critique of the idealism of his teachers helped to break its hold on Anglo-American thought. His ethical theories and the example of his own life contributed significantly to the development of contemporary life. Most of all, Moore's profound caution and sincerity in argument became the model for application of analytic methods in philosophy.

Moore studied philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford with the idealistic philosophers McTaggart and Bradley, but soon declared his independence from their influence. In an early paper on "The Nature of Judgment" (1899), he insisted that propositions have a quasi-Platonic existence independently of the mental judgments or beliefs they express. Truth, Moore therefore argued, must be a simple, non-relational property that some of these propositions possess, again without respect for the minds that entertain them. The subjective explanation of false beliefs in particular raises significant doubts about the legitimacy of an idealistic account.

A few years later, in "The Refutation of Idealism" (1903), Moore rejected the core principle of idealism and offered a distinctly realistic alternative. Every form of idealism, he noted, relies on the principle expressed by Berkeley in the Latin phrase, esse est percipi, "to be is to be perceived." This belief that everything is really just an object of experience in some mind, Moore pointed out, must be necessarily true in order to have its intended consequences for the idealist scheme. Yet it seems clear that the belief is not analytic, since there is at least a conceptual difference between being on the one hand and being perceived on the other.

Thus, Moore claimed, idealists simply assume without evidence the truth of their most important principle. Each object of experience is assumed to be nothing more than a part wholly contained within the organic whole that constitutes the subject or perceiver. The sensation of something blue is, on this view, merely the perceiver's blue sensation, a mental entity with no external referent. Not only is this position unsupported, Moore argued, but it also tends to collapse into solipsism, since it leaves individual perceivers with no evidence of anything outside their own experience.

Moore maintained that the object of any experience must be clearly distinguished from the experience itself. Indeed, experience itself should be analyzed as an irreducible relation between an external object and the perceiver's conscious awareness of that object. If we begin with this view of the perceptual situation, Moore supposed, the reality of the object is beyond question. Of course, this position is itself an assumption, for the truth of which he offered (here) no proof other than the untenability of the idealist alternative. Moreover, Moore's analysis creates a new set of difficulties regarding the analysis of the relation between subject and object.

Defending Common-Sense

Later in his career, Moore expressed more explicitly the methodological basis for his philosophical work. The ordinary beliefs human beings hold are to be accepted at face value: they mean what they say and are true, standing in no need of philosophical correction or proof. The purpose of philosophical analysis, according to Moore, is merely to explicate the precise implications of the truth of such beliefs, and that is the procedure he followed in "A Defence of Common Sense" (1925).

Moore began with a simple list of "common-sense" beliefs that each of us holds about many things, including my own body, other human bodies, my own experiences, and the experiences of other human beings. He then declared further that we all know that each of these simple beliefs is wholly true in just the (unanalyzed) sense in which they are commonly meant. Philosophers who hold opposing views Moore divided into two groups:

Thus, Moore concluded that in fact we do really know all of these common-sense beliefs to be true.

On the other hand, of course, the correct analysis of these beliefs still remains open to debate. In a parting shot against his idealist teachers, Moore pointed out that "mental facts" about conscious experience are particularly troubling, since they don't typically have the kind of timeless identity they are supposed to possess. "Physical facts" may be explicable—both logically and causally—without any direct reference to their mental representation. Moore's own analysis, however, is clearly a version of representational realism, with its attendant difficulties about the status of sense-data and their independence of individual acts of sensation.

In the later essay, "Proof of an External World" (1939), Moore's methodology (perhaps influenced by his conversations with Wittgenstein) relied even more heavily on the analysis of ordinary language. Much of his point there seems to rest on an extraordinarily cautious explanation of such phrases as "to be met with in space" and "external to the mind." Many who have been sincerely troubled by skeptical doubts will find Moore's "proof" of the existence of physical objects less than satisfying. Perhaps Moore's extremely careful procedures leave too many legitimate philosophical questions unanswered.

Ethical Life

From the beginning, Moore anticipated that his methods could be applied fruitfully to significant issues in moral philosophy. The first chapter of his Principia Ethica (1903) famously sought to analyze the concept of "good" as the basis for all moral valuation. Such an investigation is meta-ethical in nature; its goal is clarity and precision, not substantive normative content.

Although the question, "What is good?" might be answered in any of several ways, Moore dismissed most of the likely answers as irrelevant to his task. What we need is neither a list of specific things in life that happen to be good nor even a set of principles by means of which to identify such things. The proper answer must be a correct general explanation of the concept (not merely the word) "good," applicable in every possible instance. Moore's central contention was that good is a simple, non-natural quality that certain things in the world happen to exhibit.

Although many philosophers of the Western tradition had claimed to define good in terms of some other feature of the world, but Moore argued that such attempts typically confuse part with whole or cause with effect. That every attempt to define good by reference to something else fails is evident from the open question that invariably remains: "Is this really good?" (When a hedonism proposes that "Good is pleasure," for example, we naturally ask, "But is pleasure always good?") The open question shows that each effort to identify good with something else is mistaken, Moore held, and since most of these attempts equate good with a natural property, he labelled their erroneous procedure the "naturalistic fallacy."

Although indefinable, the concept of good is not meaningless, since we use it to distinguish good from bad every day. Hence, Moore concluded that "good" must be a simple, non-natural, indefinable quality that good things have. We recognize it in our experience, even though there is no explaining it; this is a version of ethical intuitionism. In later chapters of the book, Moore himself proposed that good is most evident in our appreciation of physical objects with aesthetic value and in the uniquely worthwhile experience of human friendships. Even many whose notions about morality differ from Moore's would seem to share his basic conviction that they can only be intuited, not defined or explained.

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